WRITTEN BY THE STARS
The Australian was there to chronicle the highs and lows of the country’s literary scene as it came of age, writes Geordie Williamson
MY trusty Annals of Australian Literature reports that, in the year of The Australian’s founding, only 14 adult “literary” novels were published nationwide — though several volumes of short stories were released, including Patrick White’s The Burnt Ones. While the pickings were slim, the quality was high: 1964 saw George Johnston’s My Brother Jack win the Miles Franklin, and witnessed the publication of two landmark works: Donald Horne’s The Lucky Country and Geoffrey Dutton’s The Literature of Australia.
Dutton’s volume remains a valuable and engaging work, and in his autobiography Out in the Open the patrician man of letters outlines the cultural background against which it appeared. The early 1960s was a moment when, in Dutton’s telling, certain inchoate ideas of Australia’s history were in formation. Collections of songs and ballads, surveys of visual art, encyclopedias and dictionaries of biography began to appear. The Australian’s book pages should be seen as part and parcel of these developments. They sought to gather together and focus attention on the nation’s artistic and intellectual life. These essays and reviews were sometimes acute in anticipating the arrival of a new talent or work. Just as often, their judgments were off. Yet a dive into the archives reveals a refreshingly intelligent, determinedly un-high-minded approach to the business of literature. THE most significant literary moment in the first decade of the paper’s history — White’s Nobel win in 1973 — began with a false start. White told Dutton he was cleaning his suburban Sydney home without his teeth in when Swedish journalists first descended on it in 1972, based on rumours from the Swedish Academy. He answered the door and submitted to their questions, only to learn that Heinrich Boll had won the Nobel. Twelve months later, he would not be fooled again. When, late one evening, Australia’s greatest novelist and his partner Manoly Lascaris were again besieged by journos who had gotten wind of the gong (the Swedish ambassador had been trying to get White’s number to inform him, so wary were the author’s friends of giving it out to a stranger), he refused to come to the door.
The Australian’s Elizabeth Riddell was one of those standing outside, watching the upstairs curtains twitch. Her article for the paper relates the following exchange, wryly recorded in David Marr’s biography of White: “‘Come back in the morning,’ called Lascaris. ‘We can’t wait,’ replied an anxious photographer. ‘ We have to do the Queen in the morning.’ She was in Sydney to open the Opera House that weekend.” Marr wrote that journalists and well-wishers continued to gather on the front lawn of White’s Centennial Park home. But the Swedish ambassador’s calls (when he got the number) went unanswered, and White crept downstairs only to get more whisky.
But not all major literary events played out in the news pages. The Australian was at the heart of reporting the most spectacular conflict involving Australians outside of Vietnam during these years. The 1970s “poetry wars”, as they came to be known, were fought in the trenches of the books section. On one side, a conservative cabal of poets, Arcadian in outlook and formally rigorous, led by titanic figure Les Murray. On the other, an insurgent brigade of experimental poets, avowed modernists inspired by American culture both high and low, represented by the dauntingly talented John Tranter.
Here is a typical exchange, with Tranter in The Australian, reviewing Murray’s The Vernacular Republic: Selected Poems: The problem here is that Les Murray is a little too satisfied, a little too inexperienced in the tortured metaphysics of the modern urban world, to be able to adopt convincingly the mantle of the tribal elder. The philosophy of the Left is too important to dismiss without proper argument; the legend of Anzac is too stained with the blood of the Vietnamese to be celebrated as one-sidedly as Murray does…
Unlike that Southeast Asian debacle, decades on this contest shows no sign of ending.
Another conflict that thankfully has gone cool in recent years is that of the so-called theory wars. The turn of Australian universities towards poststructuralist thinkers began in the mid-1980s and spread like intellectual Ebola, particularly in the halls of technical colleges whose students wished to distinguish themselves from the crusty Leavisites in their sandstone boltholes. And while there was a liberating aspect to the best theoretical work locally, the wilful obscurity of its less gifted practitioners earned theory ridicule in the press.
To its credit, Australian fiction proceeded in blissful ignorance of the academy’s deconstructive urges during this febrile period. And there were some thrilling achievements. Not since Tom Keneally won back-to-back Miles Franklins in the late 60s, for example, had an Australian author enjoyed a success so huge as Peter Carey’s second Booker prize. His first, for Oscar and Lucinda in 1988, indicated Carey was the coming Australian novelist of his generation; the second, for True History of the Kelly Gang in 2001, confirmed him as a major figure on the international stage.
What is less well-known is that without Barry Oakley, long-time literary editor of The Australian and a writer of note himself, Carey may never have reached the dizzy heights. When the two young men shared a commute to a Melbourne advertising agency in the mid-60s, Oakley paid his half of the petrol bill in paperbacks by modernist giants such as Faulkner, Joyce and Beckett. Up until that time, Carey later admitted, he mainly read Biggles.
Even Carey’s prodigious literary imagination would have baulked at the reality of the most notorious literary hoax of recent decades. The furore surrounding Helen Demidenko/Darville’s The Hand That Signed the Paper —a novel that won the Vogel in 1993 and the Miles Franklin in 1995 before it was revealed that the author had lied about her Ukrainian background, an ethnic association on which the veracity of her historical novel rested — opened deep fault-lines in the nation’s intellectual and literary life.
Barry Cohen, writing in The Australian soon after the novel was revealed to have been written by a Brisbane-reared woman of English extraction who had borrowed the backstory of a neighbour, subjected the work to a light savaging: “Some have read The Hand and failed to detect any anti-Semitism. If so, one can only conclude that there were different versions printed with the same cover.”
Darville eventually lit out for Britain, while Carey was already a New Yorker when his Ned Kelly novel swept the boards. It soon became clear that we could no longer speak of our literature in naive terms of geographic isolation. Indeed, the example of South African JM Coetzee — a Nobel prizewinner whose linguistic background was Afrikaans but whose cultural affiliation was with Anglosphere modernism — who took Australian citizenship in 2006, is a case study in the difficulty of speaking of national literatures in a transnational age.
Yet such centripetal forces of globalisation were matched by a centrifugal turn towards the regional. Of all of the cultural riches Australia reaped since it opened its borders to the wider world in the 60s and 70s, the most surprising treasure has come from beneath our feet. Writing by indigenous authors has emerged as the most vibrant phenomenon in contemporary Ozlit. At its vanguard stand Kim Scott and Alexis Wright, winners of three Miles Franklin awards between them, who hail from the Noongar and Waanyi people respectively.
Their work, with its intense attachment to place and to the shared language and story that emerges from the long relationship between people and land, complicates notions of “Australian” literature even as it revitalises the form.
Scott and Wright owe their careers to the support of independent Australian publishing. However, recent years have seen attacks mounted against the idea that local publishers should be protected from the exigencies of the global marketplace. Looking back through the archives, The Australian was philosophically inclined to accept the arguments for the removal of territorial copyright for Australian publishers and authors after the Productivity Commission recommended the nation do so in 2009. Yet there were voices from the conservative end of town raised in defence of the status quo
Those in the industry saw the end of publishing and bookselling as they knew it. What no one had counted on was the extent to which Amazon would render the debate null and void.
The contours of the new digital landscape are only gradually becoming clearer, and the importance of recent changes to the way we produce, disseminate and discuss books cannot be overstated. Yet the apocalypse has not arrived, quite. We were told the physical book was set for extinction and that those newspaper pages devoted to arguing their flaws and merits were fading too. But the e-reader revolution has not played out as I imagined it would. Print books have remained stubbornly present, surviving independent bookshops have a fiercely loyal constituency, and emerging social media platforms have tended to reinforce rather than undermine the old networks of literary endeavour. The small magazine and literary journal scene in Australia has never seemed more alive, for example. And while I’m obviously biased, The Australian’s book pages seem to be enjoying a welcome renaissance, too.
Patrick White’s 1973 Nobel Prize in Literature was a turning point, left; Helen Demidenko, aka Helen Darville, below
Peter Carey, above; Tim Winton, below